How Public Financing Would Change New York Casino Fight

Since 2005, the gambling industry has spent at least $9.5 million on lobbying and $1.5 million in campaign contributions per election cycle in New York. Compare this to the banking and financial service sector, which spent $16 million on lobbying each election cycle, and the energy sector, which spent $1.4 million in campaign contributions in 2010 alone. What’s shocking about this spending, as highlighted in a new report from Common Cause/NY, is that the banking and energy sectors are hundreds of times larger.

So why is Big Gambling paying-to-play in Albany at levels on par with Big Business? Because a handful of policymakers will decide where billions of dollars will flow should a plan to amend the state constitution and allow the creation of seven new Vegas-style casinos to move forward.

In the first half of this election cycle, in 2012, the gaming industry has spent $4 million on lobbying and more than $700,000 in campaign contributions. Whatever you think about casinos, this kind of spending underscores the broader issue of dominance of money in politics and suggests a specific remedy: public financing of elections. Without significant reform, how could policymakers put the public interest first in the face of all that dough? How could gambling opposition even get a seat at the table when the plate costs so much?

Governor Cuomo has expressed support for campaign finance reform in New York and sees an opportunity in the near-term:

I do believe, during this presidential season,  which threatens a truly excessive exploitation of the campaign finance laws through various means – Citizens United lawsuit, PACs, et cetera, lobbying organizations – I think people are really going to get a sense that the system is out of control, and I think that can actually help us pass a law.

Essential to any meaningful reform would be a small donation matching system, modeled on the two-decade old New York City system. As Common Cause puts it:

Public financing of elections on this model, coupled with lower contribution limits and the closing of loopholes, would provide an incentive for candidates to raise small donations from their actual constituents. Legislators would pay more attention to the citizens they are supposed to represent and be less dependent on raising money through huge checks from special interests.

Would the the New York legislature let giant new casinos start operating in the state if public financing were in place and ordinary New Yorkers were calling the shots? One would hope not, given the way casinos vacuum money out of the pockets of their downscale clientele. Regardless, though, it's the public -- not private money -- that should decide this crucial issue. 

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